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Lagan Poems


Billy McMurty opens the gates to allow the horse-drawn lighter Violet to pass safely out of the third lockA number of songs and poems have been written about the Lagan. Some are about the river, some about the canal and some about both. This is not really surprising since the canal followed the course of the river (except where the river made wide or awkward bends) until just beyond Lisburn, where they parted company, the canal following a course to the south for several miles before crossing the Lagan by means of an aqueduct and continuing in a north-westerly direction till it reached Lough Neagh. The river, on the other hand, veered southwards and eastwards towards its source in Slieve Croob near Dromara.

My Lagan Love

Of all the songs, perhaps the best known is `My Lagan Love'. The origins of this song are lost in the shadows of the past, but it is one of those beautiful songs which will surely, like the river itself, go on forever.

Where Lagan stream sings lullaby
There blooms a lily fair:
The twilight-gleam is in her eye,
The night is on her hair.
And, like a love-sick leanan-sidhe,
She hath my heart in thrall:
Nor life I owe, nor liberty,
For Love is lord of all.

Her father sails a running-barge
'Twixt Leamh-beag and The Druim;
And on the lonely river-marge
She clears his hearth for him.
When she was only fairy-high
Her gentle mother died;
But dew-Love keeps her memory
Green on the Lagan-side.

And oft-times, when the beetle's horn
Hath lulled the eve to sleep,
I steal unto her shieling lorn,
And thro' the dooring peep.
There on the crickets' singing-stone
She spares the bogwood fire,
And hums in sad, sweet undertone
The song of heart's-desire.

Her welcome, like her love for me,
Is from her heart within:
Her warm kiss is felicity,
That knows no taint of sin.
And when I stir my foot to go,
'Tis leaving Love and light
To feel the wind of longing blow
From out the dark of night.

Where Lagan stream sings lullaby
There blooms a lily fair:
The twilight-gleam is in her eye,
The night is on her hair.
And, like a love-sick leanan-sidhe,
She hath my heart in thrall:
Nor life I owe, nor liberty,
For Love is lord of all.

Note: The leanan-sidhe (fairy-mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life and they waste away. She is sometimes called bain-leanan, i.e. fairy-sweetheart. The cricket (hearth-fly) has always been considered a lucky little beast. Its presence in the kitchen-ends of farmhouses in days gone by was supposed to keep away all evil that might otherwise have entered there. The usual place to find them was among the turf ashes after dark. At one time it was the custom in some parts of the country for a young married couple to carry a 'brace' of crickets from each of the old parental hearths. This was said to bring luck to their own.

My Lagan Softly Flowing

`My Lagan Softly Flowing' is a new song, the words and music having been written by Noel McMaster. Noel grew up not far from the Lagan and spent many happy boyhood hours playing, fishing or just daydreaming along its banks. The result is a pleasant song with an instant appeal, tracing as it does the journey of the river, first through pleasing Ulster countryside and then through the industrial area beyond Lisburn before mingling at last with the salty waters of Belfast Lough. (Any slight inaccuracies may be excused on the grounds of poetic licence!)

1. Early in the morning the sun begins to rise,
Reflected on her waters, the movement of the skies.
Slowly she flows onward, disturbed I cannot see,
Through fields and rolling meadows past local industries.

My Lagan she flows softly from Slieve Croob down to the sea,
Through Dromore and Dromara, then close to Aghalee.
From Lisburn down to Hilden, Lambeg and then Shaw's Bridge,
To Belfast's salty waters where her lonesome journey ends.

2. The years pass slowly onward changes soon unfold,
No more horses pulling the barges filled with coal.
The old lock-gates have rotted, the pathway's overgrown,
But still I love to her see as slowly she grows old.

3. Oh memories they are precious, and they are brought to life
As you walk along the towpath in the evening's fading light.
But even now, the night life begins a brand new day,
Some ripples on the surface and a trout moves on her way.

4.Young lovers they walk slowly, beside my Lagan stream,
Holding hands and talking about their wildest dreams.
Across the water, laughter comes drifting through the night,
Dancing shadows ripple in the moonshine light.

5. Oh early in the morning, the sun begins to rise,
Reflected on her waters, the movement of the skies.
Slowly she flows onward, disturbed I cannot see,
Through fields and rolling meadows, past local industries.

(Printed by kind permission of Emerald Music Ltd.)

The Cruise of the Callabar

'The Cruise of the Callabar' is not intended to be taken too seriously. Again it is an old song with many variations both in words and tune. All the versions that I found relate to the Lagan Canal, but there is a school of thought which l believes that these are adaptations of a much older song telling of the first fleet that ploughed the deep from Derry to Strabane. It is my belief that each canal man had his own version which he adapted to suit his own situation.

1. Come all y' dryland sailors and listen till my song.
It's only forty verses so I won't delay yez long.
It's all about the advent-chiors of this ould Lisburn tar,
Who sailed as man before the mast aboard the Callabar.

2. The Callabar was a clipper ship, well-fastened fore and aft.
Her stern stuck out behind her and her helm was a great big shaft.
With half a gale to swell the sail she made one knot per hour.
She was the fastest ship on the Lagan Canal and only one horse power.

3. The captain he was a strappin' lad, he stood full four foot two.
His eyes were red, his face was green and his nose was a Prussian blue.
He wore a leather medal that he won in the Crimea war,
And his wife was steward and passenger cook aboard the Callabar.

4. One day the captain came to me, he says, my lad, says he,
Would you like to be a sailor and roam the ragin' sea,
Would you like to be a sailor on foreign seas to roll,
For we're under orders for Aghalee with half a ton of coal.

5. On leaving the Abercorn basin the weather it was sublime,
And passing under the ould Queen's Bridge we heard the Albert chime,
But going up the gasworks straight a very dangerous part,
We ran aground on a lump of coal that wasn't marked on the chart.

6. Then all became confusion and stormy winds did blow.
The bosun slipped on an orange peel and fell into the hold below.
More steam, more steam, the captain cried, for we are sorely pressed,
And the engineer from the bank replied, the ould horse is doin' its best.

7. When we woke up next morning we were in a dreadful funk,
For the mate he had been drownded dead while sleeping in his bunk.
To stop the ship from sinking and to save each precious life,
We threw all the cargo overboard including the captain's wife.

8. A farmer on his way to work he heard us loudly roar,
And he threw us the ends of his gallusses and pulled us all ashore,
I'm done with ocean ramblin' and roaming the ragin' main,
And the next time I'll go to Lisburn, bejabbers I'll go by train.

The Lagan Canal

'Trees on the Lagan' by William Conor

This song is similar in sentiment to 'The Cruise of the Callabar' and is the version favoured by James Hanna of Lisburn.

1. On the twentieth day of August, the day that we set sail,
Bound for Molly Ward's with a cargo of India mail,
Our ship's name, it was Jane, and the captain's name McFall.
We were, bound for foreign countries on the Lagan Canal.

2. When we came to Barbour's Quay, we saw a mighty man,
His name was Kayley Shannon with a shovel in his hand.
He said 'Now boys, drop anchor, for I'm afraid your sails will fall,
And there's goin' to be a ship-wreck on the Lagan Canal.'

3. The captain he came up on deck, a spy-glass in his hand,
He said we were in great danger, for he couldn't see dry land,
The mate he shouts, 'Put on more steam, for we are in distress,'
When the engineer replied from the bank, 'The horse is doin' 'is best.'

4. The water it was very deep, it took us to the shins,
We had a poor chance of our lives as none of us could swim.
Then think of our wives and children we might never see the more,
When a postman threw us a bar of soap and we washed ourselves ashore.

5. They brought us all to Bridge Street, and got us all a bed,
There wasn't one amongst us, but hadn't the staggers in the head,
So now my song is ended, I hope it'll please you all,
About that dreadful ship-wreck on the Lagan Canal.

Belfast Town

Both this and the following song refer to the Lagan, reminding us once more how its banks have for centuries been a favourite haunt of young lovers.

Belfast town now rich and great,
Was then a village small,
And flocks of sheep grazed on that spot,
Where stands the Linen Hall.

To herd the sheep was Mary's task,
And she did not repine;
She looked so happy in her flock,
She seemed almost divine.

And at that time young Dermott lived;
The royal crown he wore;
He ruled the ground from Belfast town
To Mourne's mountain shore.

To hunt the bear and savage wolf
Was this young Prince's pride;
One day of age he killed three
Beneath the Cave Hill side.

Returning from his weary chase,
To give his horse some rest;
The reins upon his neck lay loose,
To give his horse some breath.

And as he rode he Mary spied,
Who rose in deep alarm:
She was sleeping on a primrose bank,
With her cheek upon her arm.

And as she rose the Prince she knew,
And quickly genuflexed;
She knew him by the golden star
That glittered on his breast.

'O! maiden tell me who art thou,
That dazzle so my eyes?
Are you a goddess from the skies,
Or princess in disguise'?'

'Oh, banter not a maiden fair,
Of a low and mean degree.
My sovereign prince your pardon crave';
With that she bent her knee.

'For I am of a lowly birth,
And Poverty beside.
My widowed mother lives with me,
Upon the Lagan side.'

'Say that you are poor no more;
Since those sweet charms of yours
Are far beyond in priceless wealth
All gold or silver store.'

'Come with me and by my bride:
Here is my heart and hand;
And I will share my throne with you
As Queen of Erin's land.'

Once more her snow white hand he pressed
As they walked side by side,
Until they to the cottage came,
Where her mother did reside.

'My worthy dame,' out spoke the Prince
(The Prince of Mourne's land);
`The man has blessing on his youth
That has thy daughter's hand.'

'My worthy prince,' replied the dame,
'It's seventeen years and more
Since her I found outside my door,
Half buried in the snow.

'And around her neck were jewels fine,
And likewise gold in store,
To meet all charges till the time
I might the child restore.'

And when the Prince the necklace saw,
He started with delight,
Saying: 'Mary, dear, great is thy birth,
And great's thy wealth and right.

'You are my uncle's long lost child,
Which shall not be denied,
Since I have found at once this day
A cousin and a bride.'

And when this royal pair was wed
There rose with one loud roar
A general cheer from Belfast Lough
To Mourne's Mountain Shore. 

Mary of Sweet Belfast Town

One morning in July as early I strayed
By the banks of the Lagan I spied a young maid;
Her cheeks were like roses
And her hair was dark brown,
And her name it was Mary of Sweet Belfast Town.

I straightway walked to her and this did I say:
'Are you lovely Flora the goddess of May`'
Sure there's no beauty breathing
Ah now, why would you frown'?
Can vie with you Mary of Sweet Belfast Town.'

I said: 'Pretty fair maid, take pity, incline;
For my heart you have wounded, you angel divine:
How gladly I'd ransom Some emperor's crown,
Just for to enjoy you in Sweet Belfast Town.'

And she answered and said: 'Please to mind what you're sayin',
For the young man I love has gone over the main;
And I hear he is married on Some girl of renown,
Which is why I am single in Sweet Belfast Town.'

And it's when that he found she was loyal and true,
He said: 'Look, dearest Mary I've been true to you;
For these seven long years I have roamed up and down,
But my heart was still with you in Sweet Belfast Town.'

She flew to his arms with much joy and surprise,
And she ate him alive with the love in her eyes;
On a bank of primroses They both then sat down,
All near to the Lagan and Sweet Belfast Town.

And early next morning this couple they went
To the church to get married with every consent;
And as he had great riches His love for to crown,
They live quite contented in Sweet Belfast Town.


Continued Lagan 2